Revolting Food Trends of 2011-2012

Four uprisings of global significance surprised the world in 2011, and the spirit of all four will surprise those who manage the food system in 2012—which leads to my choice of year-end and year-beginning  indicators that pick up the colors of these uprisings in emerging habits related to eating.

North American sales of local food topped $7 billion in 2011 thanks to the establishment of numerous urban gardens.

Historically speaking, the  hot link between food or farm issues and social unrest is almost axiomatic. Long before 1789, when the pot was stirred for the French Revolution after the poor of Paris heard that the Queen dismissed their need for bread by saying “let them eat cake,” and for many decades since 1917, when Russian workers and peasants were inspired to revolution by the slogan “peace, land and bread,”  food and farming issues have caused massive and radical protests.

Those in charge of food policy have learned a thing or two from the Boston Tea Party, a 1773 protest against British taxes on tea that erupted into the American Revolution, and from Gandhi’s mass march across India in 1926 to protest British taxes on salt, which grew into the movement for Indian independence. Lesson learned: artificially cheap food became and remains an assumed foundation of food and tax policy in all countries.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, 2012 will be one of the first times in history when food protests follow, rather than precede, mass protests. But signs are there that food fights are coming, and will deepen the spirit rising up around the world.

Let me start by dishing out some major features of the rebellious movements that led TIME Magazine to christen 2011 the “year of the protester.”

A list of game-changing protests has to start with the Arab Spring that brought down governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and upset the applecart of geo-politics across the oil-rich but tyrannical Middle East.

The long hot spring spread to Spain in mid-May, when Indignados, fed up with chronic youth unemployment, launched permanent installations of people-power in key cities.

The main event in August has been called more riot than rebellion, but the sight of thousands of ghetto youth on a looting rampage in and around the English capital set off alarm bells of “broken Britain” and “dangerous classes,” and can be viewed as a fire-next-time uprising against lack of cohesion and hope.

Closing act of the year was the Occupy movement, which began in New York and quickly spread to many centers, mostly to extensive media coverage that triggered widespread populist anger against economic inequality.

All these events shared basic qualities that are easily exportable to food systems—indeed, that food system abuses of power have almost been crying out for.

They are all youthful and youth-led movements. They are all intensely urban, confirming the analysis of Jeb Brugmann’s Welcome to the Urban Revolution, which prophesized that urban patterns of density and collaboration could overwhelm any dictatorship.

They all polarized debate and popular mobilization, as in the one percent and the 99 percent—a momentous shift from the group and identity politics that were the centerpiece of dissent over most of the last two decades. They all practiced direct action in confrontation with governments, with barely an effort to collaborate with a force increasingly defined as on the wrong side, and obviously suffering from what might be called a “crisis in legitimacy” and relevance—the most common precondition of revolutionary success for the very good reason that it indicates the failure of rulers to command any hold over the hearts and minds of the ruled.

Lest I forget, they all made use of social media to communicate with the world without intermediaries. And they all borrowed freely from one another in a potluck dinner style of throwing together a protest just as company arrived.

Check out the 2011-2012 food scene with these megatrends in mind.

Urban agriculture is one of the most talked about food activities of the year, with community gardens, greenhouses, green rooftops, guerilla gardens, sprouted windowsills, legal and illegal chicken coops, and bee hives popping up everywhere.  Farmers’ markets continued as the fastest growing retail trend in food, with a new force coming up from behind—healthy, multicultural food trucks and street vendors, all made possible by casual employment realities of youth. North American sales of local food topped USD $7 billion, almost double what they were just three years ago.

Do It Yourself tops health trends, with Apple providing over 11,000 apps and climbing to help people identify and monitor daily must-do’s and even reprimand bad behaviors.  If governments can’t even get it together to impose modest limits on salt in processed foods, junk food ads targeting children—let alone think-and-chew-gum-at-same-time level moves like departments that link food and fitness or healthcare and food—why should anyone take them seriously? Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future gets credit in the media for promoting “flexitarianism” as in Meatless Mondays, taking off around the world, sparking serious declines in beef sales and saying what no corporate-controlled government can wrap its head around—eat LESS meat (since less is verboten in government-speak, the phrase is “eat more lean….”)

In line with these shifts, food policy councils—only a decade ago isolated in Toronto and two mid-sized cities in the U.S.—have now spread to some 150 centers, including Detroit, New York, Vancouver, Oakland, Baltimore, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Bristol in the U.K., with many more in the wings—making them the fastest-growing institutional trend in cities.

Eating habits are all over the place. Whole grains, many of them ancient, are flying off the shelf. So are ultra-fabricated foods. Some speculate that the very notion of three daily meals has gone the way of the dodo. The new normal is one meal and multiple snacks eaten any time and any place—perfect for the unregulated hours of youth caught in the informal economy and with no fixed address for their new life. Americans only follow government meal guidelines 7 days a year.

Governments are in such bad odor as ethical guides to good behavior that corporations of quite conventional ethics are draping themselves in ethical, corporate social responsibility and sustainability codes that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, when obeying the law was pretty high standard on its own. The three global food winners of one European food ethics award were Kraft, Unilever, and Pepsi. One shudders to think of the losers.

Big Food has a tough row to hoe winning street cred for the 99 percent. Ten global multinationals control most sales in almost every food and beverage sector, from  seeds to chemicals to warehousing to slaughtering to sales.

Walmart is the leader of the monopolistic pack and may even be described as the major force producing monopolies in the food industry, as processors and others gird to find some point of equal leverage with the supersized aggregator—competition made more fierce in a food system that encourages no collaboration along the food supply chain to improve the value of the final product brought to the consumer. With 3000 supercenters, Walmart now commands a quarter of all grocery purchases in the U.S., worth some USD $140 billion a year, according to Stacy Mitchell’s report in Grist.

Bankers came out as top villains of 2011, and Big Food got off light. Watch for that to change sometime over the next 365.25 days as the creative and rambunctious forces of force of youth, cities, populism and direct empowerment are increasingly joined.

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